AUB City Debates: Refugee Policies Paradigms and Limitations

This is a synthesis of the panel “Refugee Policies Paradigms and Limitations” given by at the AUB City Debates 2016 (other reports are listed here). The panel was composed of Dr Romola Sanyal and Ms Jessy Nassar (London School of Economics, United Kingdom and American University of Beirut, Lebanon), Dr. Erica Harper (West Asia – North Africa Institute Think Tank, Jordan), and Dr Loren Landau and Dr Caroline Kihato (Wits University, South Africa).

Untitled, Clacton-on-Sea, Banksy, from

Untitled, Banksy, from

1. Romola Sanyal and Jessy Nassar, “From Crisis to Opportunity: Collaboration and Planning for Syrian refugees and the Lebanese host community”

The relation to host communities has been an ongoing topic of refugee studies, but it has led to ignoring other aspects of the relation between societies and refugees, in particular the way in which refugee crises impact and transform cities, both in terms of planning and physical layout. This topic, because it carries obvious consequences in terms of policy, is nonetheless particularly relevant for the question. When refugee crises are foremost urban, their relation to urban landscapes is relevant and legitimate.

The topic has to be rooted in the question of how cities are made and built regardless of the presence of the refugee crises. In the context of Lebanon the actors are extremely important, as they import expertise from other sites to the country and apply it in relation to the Lebanese context. At the same time the great absent of this context remains the state. Therefore for the premises the question opens like a “regular” urban question in Lebanon, a country marked by the importance of foreign stakeholders and the absence of a strong state.

a. The fieldwork

The researchers chose three localities in Lebanon, one in Tripoli and the two others in the Bekaa Valley, identified because they are part of the most vulnerable localities identified by the UN, and because they are marked by a strong refugee presence (more refugees than locals in the cases in the Bekaa). The methodology applied is mostly qualitative and aimed at assessing urban policies.

The context is that, in all contexts, of an absence of official policy regarding refugees in Lebanon: the  Lebanese policy of welcoming Syrian refugees has not been associated to a planning of the hosting of these refugees, either in terms of infrastructure in cities or via the opening of official refugee camps. This situation in return had a strong effect on urban infrastructures and caused the crisis to have multi-layered implications. In parallel, it is difficult to locate the crisis because the refugees are mobile and hardly traceable.

In Bar Elias and Marj in the Bekaa, there are more refugees than hosts. This has led to a situation of emergency in urban terms, with an increased tension weighing on cities and therefore mayors. The reaction of UN-Habitat has been to open regional offices, with a relative successs so far due to a lack of resources and coordination.

b. Challenges of coordination

The top-down approach applied by the agency caused a certain number of difficulties, which have been voiced on the ground by actors such as NGOs and international workers. In particular, the non-integration of local actors in the decision process, causing a general feeling that the affected populations were left aside. Therefore the projects have been re-assessed and participation committees were founded but, as this is still an ongoing research, their effect has not been assessed yet.

c. Conclusion: Thinking forward

Through stress on infrastructure, the crisis has aggravated the situation and reshaped cities and landscapes. It is important to get out of a technical framework on this question and focus on human actors, as well as working on different scales to comprehend the situation.

2. Erica Harper, “Towards economic resilience for host communities and refugees: a case study example of industrial development planning from Jordan”

This project started at the tipping point of the refugee crisis in 2014/2015, when Jordan was faced with the refugee presence in terms of economic problems. At that time, the country was beginning to replace refugee workers by nationals due to a form of xenophobia. Nonetheless the jobs held by the migrants were not wanted by the Jordanians. Therefore the proposal made by the think tank, relying on political avoidance and discreet political work, went the other way in order to conceive solutions applicable to that refugee crisis and the next.

a. Jordan’s situation in 2014

The best comparison for Jordan is that with Singapore: there is a lot of educated national workers and a desire to turn towards high-tech, but contrarily to Singapore there is no regional growth allowing a take off of the economy, despite all the good investment and the advantages of the Kingdom. Creating a regional cluster is of course very difficult in that region. Finally, the Jordanians did not want to take certain jobs, leading to a lack of labour forces, while at the same time the refugees were perceived as a threat.

b. The proposal

Jordan needed to attract three types of investments, coming from companies formerly in Syria but having left it, actors looking forward to the reconstruction of the region, and companies looking for immediate profit. For these things the availability on the long run of a cheap and plentiful source of labour in the persons of refugees was an asset for the country. In order to mobilise that asset the right to work had to be obtained for refugees, but the policy-makers would not have it. Therefore a deal had to be brokered with the participation of Europe who pledged money in exchange of not having to deal with the refugees in its own territory.

That discussion wes obviously dominated by the question of post-war resilience, but we have evidence according to Harper that conflicts come from societies having high rates of natural resources, high ethnic and religious diversity, unemployment, young men, and so forth. Since we cannot change the situation for diversity and resources, we can act on the factor of unemployed young men by giving them jobs. In parallel the production of this share of economy in Jordan is easily delocalised in Syria after the war is over and will contribute to reconstruct it. So yes Jordan will benefit from cheap labour from Syrian refugees, but since the refugees will too, and Syria after the war, it is a win-win situation.

3. Loren Landau and Caroline Kihato, “Stealth Humanitarianism? Politics, Precarity, and Performance Management in protecting the Displaced in Urban Africa”

Although the question of refugee camps is important, the presentation begins with the remark that most refugees actually do live outside of camps, and in cities which are not far from the conflicts that caused them. In the meantime, institutions are placed in a position of having to make do with the limitations of the paradigm of encampment, which is not necessarily a bad thing because refugee communities are more self-reliant than in camps. Nonetheless the city context has a disadvantage for humanitarian action, which is that is is difficult to control. The discussion will be on the adaptations of humanitarianism to these contexts, with cases from Kampala, Nairobi, and Johannesburgh.

a. Limitations of “classical” humanitarianism

First of all there are some paralysing principles crippling humanitarian action: the fact that it is rarely working outside of camps, that it relies on a mistaken idea that it would be politically neutral, that it works on short-term projects, aimed at categories of population, elements which do not guarantee efficiency. These categories are often bypassed by the real and the adaptation of local communities. Instead, it appears that a more discreet, place-aimed form of action is more efficient for three reasons:

  1. The protection model is failing because of its eagerness to work based on status and it ignores the adaptations of the refugees to local contexts, especially through their inclusion to the informal market.
  2. As far as we can see, education programmes are inefficient on the long-term and do not help people.
  3. The same goes for direct aid.

Instead, examples of focusing on where people live and working on translocal contexts seems more efficient, as discussed in the second part of the presentation.

b. Fieldwork: smaller, smarter, and stealthier means more efficient

The three contexts highlight how adaptations and the development of a stealthy humanitarianism can be a good way out of the limitations of the “classical” type of actions:

  1. In Johannesburgh, the support programmes aimed at refugees as a category did not help and actually ended up harming people. Being identified as “refugee” could be a threat for persons who were then targetted in a xenophobic manner and preferred not using the support proframmes. For example, placing security agents in charge of protecting the refugees identified them as privileged victims for assaults. “Inclusivity”, which works at state-level, does not apply at the level at which people live concretely. Instead, other projects aimed a poor households for questions of housing or healthcare with the support of the municipality which did not want to act on refugees but was happy to work on these frames were less discriminating and identified the refugees not as targets, but as victims.
  2. In Kampala the centralised authority was the elements which mattered. Refugees were not voiced and were instead invisibilised, they could integrate the city in their daily life. Therefore targetting the state and its specific social projects was a good method.
  3. In Nairobi, the classical “human rights” framework, in a context in which actors did not consider the Constitution seriously, was failing and did not work. Nonetheless the actors did understand the question of business, which was burning for them, and was a good way of obtaining support for the refugees. Here again, not going against the “invisibilisation” of refugees seemed to be efficient in unlocking support.

On these three cases, we can see conditions in which stealthy humanitarian actions, working with a hidden agenda on refugee questions and adapting to the existing frames of policy instead of aiming at shedding light on a “refugee problem”, was efficient. This demands a lot from humanitarian workers, who need to rethink what they are doing to adapt to what the actors are doing, and therefore abandon the “refugee law” framework to work discreetly and sometimes play with the law, which they are not used to do, but this system appears as more realistic than a constant increase of funding which does not do much for the people.

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